It is one of the major blind-spots in international humanitarian aid. But recent and ongoing emergencies demonstrate the crucial role that local people have to play in the aftermath of disasters.
Much of the humanitarian work currently taking place in Syria and neighbouring countries would not be possible without networks of dedicated organizations which understand where need is greatest and how best to respond.
One of the key lessons from the Mali crisis, earlier this year, was that local people held an overwhelming advantage over their international counterparts in bringing aid to communities suffering both drought and conflict in rebel-occupied areas.
The immediate response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010 by Haitian organizations – many of whose staff had themselves lost family members and homes – showed just how important local action is in meeting urgent, life-or-death needs.
But, despite the lessons of successive emergencies, and though some international agencies do work in partnership with local actors, local and national organizations are repeatedly sidelined by the international humanitarian system as a whole.
This is not something which has only recently come to light. In 2006 the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition noted that ‘the international humanitarian community needs a fundamental reorientation from supplying aid to supporting and facilitating communities’ own relief and recovery priorities.’
In 2011, the UK’s Humanitarian Emergency Response Review put it no less starkly: ‘Local capacities are not utilized, the beneficiary is not involved enough and the quality of delivery is lower than it should be.’
Now a new report by five British-based organizations (Christian Aid, Oxfam, Cafod, ActionAid and Tearfund) has provided some of the most compelling evidence yet for a fundamental reorientation of the humanitarian system. By assessing the benefits and challenges of partnership-based approaches in four recent emergencies in Haiti, DRC, Kenya and Pakistan, it demonstrates that ‘the need for such transformative change is beyond question.’
The research shows that partnerships have clear potential to improve the humanitarian sector in at least three important areas.
Local organizations’ understanding of the context, culture and internal dynamics of a disaster-affected community can help them enhance the relevance and appropriateness of the humanitarian response, including in areas such as identifying those most in need, or the resources already available within a community to help.
Following the Haiti earthquake for example, Christian Aid’s partner organization Aprosifa paid existing groups of cooks to set up small community kitchens, providing food in a way which was locally acceptable and supported small business.
The speed with which local organizations can respond to disasters, particularly in the first few days of a rapid-onset emergency, can greatly increase the effectiveness of humanitarian performance. Other contributing factors include the ability of local organizations to involve the community in the humanitarian effort, like in Haiti, and their superior ability to consult with affected communities.
The partnership approach also points a way forward in one of today’s biggest humanitarian challenges: how to improve the connectedness between humanitarian response and longer-term development work.
In the international system, the problem is often attributed to the existence of separate development and humanitarian silos and the poor coordination – if not outright incompatibility – between the two. Yet many local organizations are likely to tackle all areas across the disaster spectrum from resilience and response to recovery. The silos simply don’t exist.
Changing the current system will not be without its challenges and requires the investment of time and resources. Staff on both sides of the relationship will need to be trained in partnership working. Cultural differences may need to be explained and capacity needs to be built.
But aside from the report’s findings that the pros significantly outweigh the cons, there are other compelling reasons for reorienting the current system in favour of a partnership-based approach.
Where national governments restrict direct international aid delivery on their soil, for example, partnerships offer another way for the international humanitarian sector to meet people’s needs. And as the threat of disaster increases in many parts of the world as a result of climate change, so too does the importance of those local organizations which will be called on to respond.
Not only do partnerships provide a way forward for the current shortcomings of the humanitarian sector, then, they also represent a crucial investment in its future. Local organizations will continue to save lives and rebuild communities in the aftermath of disasters, with or without widespread international support. The question now is whether they will do so in spite of the international aid system or in partnership with it.